Today, a federal court overturned an earlier ruling that allowed Google rights to build Oracle's Java API into Android, setting a broad precedent that already has many legal scholars crying foul. If the ruling stands, it will give software companies copyright over their APIs, the interfaces that programs use to communicate with each other. The new standard is good news for Oracle, which holds the rights to Java and its widely used API, but potentially disastrous for software developers that want to build software based on existing APIs. The result could force new services may be forced to start from scratch.
Potentially disastrous for software developers
APIs are one of the most important tools in modern programming, allowing third-party services to pull information automatically from central services like Google, Facebook and Twitter. (Apps like Tweetdeck, for instance, get your tweets by calling on Twitter's API.) In this case, Google the Android OS on top of a modified version of Java, but kept Java's API to make it easier for programmers to write for Android. Since many coders were already familiar with the quirks of Java's API, the decision gave them a head start in writing programs for Android — but from the beginning, Oracle saw that privilege as belonging to them . In May of 2012, a district court ruled that copyrighting the calls would simply tie up "a utilitarian and functional set of symbols," and gave Google free rein on the API. Oracle appealed the ruling, and two years later, a federal court has overturned. The next step is the Supreme Court, but it could be years before the issue is finally settled.
Already, the ruling has drawn disapproval from IP advocates. Villanova law professor Michael Risch blames the court for granting too strong of a copyright, preferring a conception that allows for interoperability and reuse: "Google should surely be privileged to do what it did without having to resort to fair use." Going further, University of Maryland professor James Grimmelmann writes, "This is an opinion written by judges whose understanding of software comes from reading other judges' opinions about software." In even simpler terms, Sarah Jeong writes, "It's like getting mad at a screwdriver for looking like a screwdriver."